KARA WALKER, “Dr. King,” 2015

 

THE YEAR 2018 coincides with many historic milestones. It’s been a half century since the Studio Museum in Harlem was founded, the Chicago artist collective AFRICOBRA was formed, Olympic track athletes raised their fists at the Mexico City games in a stand for racial justice, and the Kerner Commission was released and declared the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” All of these occurrences spoke to the times and state of American culture.

This year also marks another clarion call: The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader was killed April 4, 1968, in Memphis.

A special issue published by The Atlantic marks the anniversary. The magazine, whose early contributors included Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B Du Bois, considers the legacy of King through a contemporary lens. The project was envisioned by two African American staffers—writer Vann R. Newkirk II and managing editor Adrienne Green.

Intent on avoiding a documentary tribute or “devotional artifact,” the magazine sought to create “an exploration of our fraught moment.” In his editor’s note, Jeffrey Goldberg writes, “My colleagues suggested that we use this opportunity to refract King’s life through the prism of his three main pre-occupations—the ‘three major evils,’ as he called them—of racism, poverty, and militarism.”

With a tagline that states his legacy is still being written, the issue threads King’s insightful and prescient speeches, letters, and other writings with original reporting that gives context to the environment in which he was working and the world in which we find ourselves in 2018.

The issue threads King’s insightful and prescient speeches, letters, and other writings with original reporting that gives context to the environment in which he was working and the world in which we find ourselves in 2018.

A reflection from Bernice King opens the special edition. She imagines how her father would articulate his nonviolent strategy to affect change in today’s society. An excerpt from the new book, “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age” by Patrick Parr, examines his early years when he attended theological seminary at age 19. Also featured are the words of prominent leaders including A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, Stokely Carmichael, and Benjamin Mays, the former president of Morehouse College who eulogized King, his former student, in 1968.

Newkirk conducts an interview with John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who, as a young activist leader, knew and worked with King. Green talks to John Legend and Jesse Williams about the intersection of art and activism. The role of women in the fight for civil rights is explored. Other articles examine why schools remain segregated in 2018 and the arc of urban uprisings. Noting that King was bailed out of jail by a millionaire, Clint Smith reports on how the criminal justice system is increasingly stacked against the poor.

Contributors also include National Book Award-winning author Jesymn Ward; Pulitzer Prizie-winner Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”; filmmaker and activist Bree Newsome; and artists LaToya Ruby Frazier and Kara Walker, among others.

Integrating the work of Walker and Frazier with the contributions of journalists, scholars, historians, and authors, demonstrates how contemporary artists are interrogating socioeconomic issues with the same rigor as their counterparts and playing a valuable role in the discourse on the history of racial ills in America and the future of democracy.

 


LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER’s aerial photographs of Memphis, Chicago, and Baltimore, are featured in a six-page photo essay exploring how the cities have fared through five decades of oppression since King’s assassination.

 

In her practice, Frazier uses social documentary photography, video, and performance to shine a light racial justice and human rights issues. She is recognized for her images of Braddock, Pa., where she was born and raised. The town’s economic fortunes rose and fell with the steel industry, which also left the community, including her own family, reeling with health issues. More recently, she has documented how people in Flint, Mich., are coping with the city’s water crisis.

For the Atlantic, in the section that concentrates on poverty, Chicago-based Frazier considers “The Geography of Oppression” with a photo essay. Her images contrast Memphis, where rage after King’s assassination was tempered by his organizing apparatus, with Chicago and Baltimore, where violence erupted resulting in millions of dollars in damages. Shooting from a helicopter, she revisits the three cities “to explore how they have responded to five more decades of oppression” and document the transformation of their physical landscapes post-King.

Shooting from a helicopter, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier revisits Memphis, Chicago and Baltimore “to explore how they have responded to five more decades of oppression” and document the transformation of their physical landscapes post-King.


Aerial Injustice: LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER trains her lens on the King’s legacy in Memphis, Chicago, and Baltimore. | Video by The Atlantic

 

Green writes about Walker’s work, which focuses on the legacy of racism and the brutality of American history. In the militarization section, the magazine published five drawings and watercolors from her 2015 exhibition “Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First.”

Part of a series of small works on paper called “ATL Notes,” the images include a fictional monument to Dylann Roof, the self-described white supremacist who killed nine African American parishioners during Bible study at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015; inflamed crosses captioned “Burning Crosses Don’t Mean Anything Unless Accompanied By A Burning Nigger”; and a cast of Confederate figures, Ku Klux Klansmen, and a black man burning at stake, titled “Stone Mountain Mascot Hunt.”

(Born in Stockton, Calif., Walker lives and works in New York. From the age of 13, she grew up in Stone Mountain, Ga., in the shadow of Stone Mountain Park where a monumental Confederate Memorial Carving, a la Mount Rushmore, pays tribute to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.)

“By focusing on the myths that undergird these historical narratives, she suggests that the legacies of these troubled eras are much more fraught than they might appear, whether carved into mountainsides or inscribed in textbooks,” Green writes. “…Fifty years after King’s assassination, Walker’s art underlines the wounds that remain—and how people today are complicit in perpetuating them.” CT

 

The Atlantic’s special King issue is available on newsstands through May 28, 2018. Content from the print issue is being rolled out online in the coming weeks. It can be accessed here.

 

TOP IMAGE: KARA WALKER, “Dr. King,” 2015 (watercolor and graphite on paper). | © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York via The Atlantic

 

BOOKSHELF
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photography is documented in “LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Notion of Family” and the recently published “LaToya Ruby Frazier: And from the Coaltips a Tree Will Rise.” Among the many volumes exploring the work of Kara Walker, consider “Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati” and “Kara Walker – MCMXCIX,” a sketchbook released last year, which features works she began in 1999 at the age of 29. “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, follows eight Milwaukee families “as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Jesymn Ward’s award-winning novels include “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and “Salvage the Bones.”

 


KARA WALKER, “MLK Monument Revised,” 2015 (watercolor and graphite on paper). | © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York via The Atlantic

 

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